The inaugural edition of Chicago’s Cinepocalypse festival has been remarkably celluloid-centric. (But that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that it’s being held at the Music Box, home of the 70mm Film Festival.) And next to Monday’s 35mm presentation of Suspiria, the most prominent manifestation of that tendency is the Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane screening series, selected and presented by The Grey and Smokin’ Aces writer-director Joe Carnahan.
Speaking over the phone with The A.V. Club, Carnahan says that the idea for the series began with plans to screen his directorial debut, 1998's Blood, Guts, Bullets, And Octane—which The A.V. Club’s Joshua Klein said in his DVD review, “grit and all, still beats most big-budget action movies”—at the festival. “It was a tiny little film I did that got me into Sundance; a lot of people think Narc was the first movie I ever did, but it was this one,” he says. While securing the film for Cinepocalypse, Carnahan discovered that the rights to Blood, Guts, Bullets, And Octane had reverted back to him from Lionsgate, the distributor who had bought the film in the late ‘90s. “And so now my living room is full in every possible corner with boxes of reels and digi-beta tapes. I have the Castilian mix of the movie, the Italian mix of the movie. It’s crazy,” he says. “Part of me thinks I should recut the thing and remaster it on my own. It would be fun,” he adds, saying, “If Cinepocalypse hadn’t come up, I’m not sure I would have [ever] been hip to that.”
First, though, was last night’s screening of the film in Chicago, followed by today’s series of (mostly) 35mm repertory screenings. If you’d like to play along at home, here’s what Carnahan chose, and why:
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 biker horror Western is “still one of the coolest takes on vampirism” out there, according to Carnahan. “Bill Paxton is terrifying in that fucking movie! Terrifying! When he goes into that bar! It’s so scary!,” he exclaims excitedly, before launching into a story about how Bigelow and James Cameron shared cast members between Aliens and Near Dark, shooting them around the same time. “Blue Steel and Point Break—those are great action films,” he says. “Putting aside the whole male/female thing, she’s just a great action director. I think she’s dynamite.”
Hard Times, Walter Hill’s 1975 depression-era boxing drama starring Charles Bronson as an illegal prizefighter, is probably the least known title in the series, and the only one not screening on 35mm. (Instead, the Music Box is showing a new 4k restoration of the film.) “That’s one of those films that’s not on enough, but I think it’s one of Bronson’s best performances,” Carnahan says. “It plays to his strengths. He’s a man of few words. It’s all action. The fights are so great.” He considers director Walter Hill similarly underrated: “I don’t think Hill has ever really gotten his due [for how influential he was],” he says, citing Drive, whose story was heavily influenced by Hill’s The Driver. Because Hill’s films are modest and workmanlike, Carnahan believes that “these guys were really great at what they did, but since they had lives outside of filmmaking they aren’t as celebrated” as their flashier counterparts.
“When John Woo was in Hong Kong, they were just doing insanely great stuff. Insanely dangerous and insanely great stunt stuff that’s still unrivaled in terms of managing to do that and not kill anybody,” Carnahan says. “They don’t have the same restrictions in terms of on-set safety.” To be clear, that’s a good thing: “It certainly makes for exciting, compelling action cinema,” he adds, singling out Woo’s over-the-top action style as hugely influential on filmmakers that came after him—Carnahan included.
“I wouldn’t call Maximum Overdrive a great film, but I certainly love it,” Carnahan says. “I have vivid high school memories of going to the drive-in and seeing it several times.” Compared to Hard Times, which comes from a very ‘70s school of adult-oriented action-dramas, Carnahan thinks that “that one, as goofy as it is, might actually stand up the best because kids today have a great sense of the sardonic and the ironic.” Not to mention the current vogue for all things Stephen King, which Carnahan says “will go down as one of the greatest American novelists of all time” because he “has a great eye for the big idea”—even when that idea involves a vending machine attacking people with flying cans of soda. “Maximum Overdrive is maybe the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but I don’t care. Killer toasters? Come on, man. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.